Before the Civil War, Benjamin Roberts lost, and then won, his fight to integrate Boston’s schools.
And then after he died, he lost again.
In 1848, Benjamin Roberts filed a lawsuit to desegregate the Boston school system so his five-year-old daughter, Sarah, could attend a good school close to home. As a child of color, she had to attend the inferior Abiel Smith School in Boston’s black community on Beacon Hill.
The Roberts family had strived for equal treatment since Sarah’s great-grandfather fought in the American Revolution. They typically met with some success, then with bitter failure. Benjamin Roberts repeated that pattern. Though he won his campaign to integrate Boston’s schools, his lawsuit set a precedent that would enshrine Jim Crow into law for more than half a century.
Perhaps the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice, as Martin Luther King wrote. But for Benjamin Roberts and his family it seemed just as likely to bend back toward injustice.
Benjamin Franklin Roberts was born Sept. 4, 1815, in Boston, one of Sarah and Robert Roberts’ 12 children. He viewed himself as a person of color – English, African and Indian, probably Wampanoag and Narragansett.
His family had long worked for social justice, and his father and uncle both published books. His grandfather, James Easton, was a free man of color born in Middleborough, Mass. James married another woman of color, Sarah Dunbar, and they had four sons. One son, Caleb, married a white woman, and three of their six children passed as white.
Historians George Rice and James Stewart argue that fact bears mentioning because it shows why separation of the races made no sense to the Easton family and to Benjamin Roberts. It also shows that racial categories hadn’t yet hardened in early America.
James Easton fought for the rights of citizenship as a soldier in the American Revolution, digging breastworks on Dorchester Heights, occupying towns in the Hudson River Valley and fighting in the fall of Fort Ticonderoga. After mustering out he moved his family to North Bridgewater, now Brockton, where he set up an ironworks. Easton made edge tools, anchors and custom work like the grillwork for the Tremont Theater and the rails for the Boston Marine Railway. His clients in Boston viewed him as a man of integrity, according to historian William Nell.
Easton and his family attended the Fourth Church of Christ, which created a “Negro gallery” for all people of color to sit. The Easton family refused to sit there, instead buying a pew from a white family. The congregation then had them physically removed.
Undaunted, the Eastons bought a pew in a Baptist Church in Stoughton Corner. According to Nell, that aroused a great deal of indignation. “Not succeeding in having the bargain canceled, the people tarred the pew,” wrote Nell. “The next week the family carried [their own] seats in the waggon. The pew was then pulled down: but the family sat in the aisle. These indignities were continued until the separation of the family [from the church].”
Around 1815, James Easton started a vocational school, with academics, for colored youth. The school enrolled 20 students and taught smithing, farming, cordwaining, academics and deportment. It survived for 14 years, but collapsed financially. James Easton died soon thereafter.
James’ son Hosea Easton became a minister and, for a while, preached from a church on Beacon Hill. Active in abolitionist circles, he got involved in a project to establish a manual labor school in New Haven with Yale College. That project, like his father’s school, failed.
By the 1820s, racism began to intensify as New England gradually emancipated slaves. Free men and woman of color began to form their own communities, which white New England harassed.
As rising racism led to attacks on colored people on the street, Hosea preached against racial violence from his pulpit in Hartford. Whites attacked him and his parishioners, and ultimately burned down his church.
Hosea wrote an essay denouncing racism called To Heal the Scourge of Prejudice. It’s still in print.
He had a sister, Sarah Easton, who married Robert Roberts, a butler, but no ordinary butler. Roberts worked for two prominent, wealthy men: Christopher Gore and Nathaniel Appleton. He also wrote a book: The House Servants’ Directory, which became a standard for household management. That book, too, is still in print.
Roberts v. Boston
Robert Roberts named his second son, Benjamin Franklin Roberts, after the founding father. Like his namesake, Benjamin worked as a printer.
As a boy, Benjamin Roberts had to pass white schools to attend a segregated school, and he would never forget feeling as an “inferior and outcast.” But at least he went to school. Only 2 percent of African Americans attended school in the decade before the Civil War.
As an adult, he started an abolitionist newspaper in the United States, the Anti-Slavery Herald, but it didn’t last long.
In 1848, his five-year-old daughter Sarah attended the segregated Abiel Smith School. It had peeling paint, a tiny play space and a library with exactly one book. She had to walk a long way past five whites-only schools to get to it. Roberts filed a lawsuit demanding the integration of all Boston public schools and $600 in damages.
He hired a 26-year-old black attorney, Robert Morris, to argue the case before the Suffolk County Court of Common Pleas. Morris, active in abolitionist causes, may have been the first lawyer of color to win a lawsuit. He did not win Roberts v. Boston.
Roberts planned all along to appeal. But to argue the case before Lemuel Shaw, chief justice of Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court, he enlisted co-counsel Charles Sumner. Sumner, who grew up in Beacon Hill’s black community, would win election to the U.S. Senate in just a few years as well as a place in history as an outspoken opponent of slavery.
The Boston Post editorialized against their case. “Our citizens of the West End will not suffer the infusion of forty to fifty colored boys and girls among their own children,” wrote the editors.
Sumner argued that separate schools could never be equal, and that Sarah suffered psychological harm by attending an inferior, segregated school.
“According to the spirit of American institutions, and especially o the Constitution of Massachusetts, all men, without distinction of color or race, are equal before the law,” he told the court.
In the end, Shaw upheld the legality of separate but equal schools. In his decision, he famously wrote, “This prejudice, if it exists, is not created by law, and probably cannot be changed by law.”
Benjamin Roberts, though angry and disappointed, did not give up. At least one good thing came out of his lawsuit: a militant new partnership between black and white abolitionists in Boston.
Wrote Price and Stewart, “Together, Morris and Sumner embodied the emergence of a powerful new alliance between groups of “black” and “white” activists, not as philanthropists sponsoring projects of “uplift” but as a coalition of insurgents bent on ridding the “Old Bay State” of “southern influences” and legal oppression.”
Roberts took his cause to the Legislature. With help from abolitionist leaders, both colored and white, he collected signatures on petitions to ban segregated schools. Sumner helped make his argument to lawmakers. And then in 1855, the Massachusetts Legislature banned segregated schools in the only statewide desegregation law passed in the 19th century.
“Who among us can refrain from giving vent to highest exultation over these remarkable events?” wrote an overjoyed Roberts. He called the ban ‘the greatest boon ever bestowed upon our people.’
Plessy v. Ferguson
Benjamin Roberts died on Sept. 6, 1881, at the age of 66. His family buried him in Mount Auburn Cemetery. Lemuel Shaw had died 20 years earlier, 12 days before the Civil War broke out. But his reasoning in the Roberts v. Boston case survived.
In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court used Shaw’s logic against letting Sarah into a white school. The high court applied his ‘separate but equal’ doctrine in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, which justified Jim Crow laws. It would take another 58 years to roll back that decision, viewed as one of the worst in U.S. History. In 1954, school integration once again became the law of the land with the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.
With thanks to The Roberts Case, the Easton Family, & the Dynamics of the Abolitionist Movement in Massachusetts, 1776-1870 by George R. Price and James Brewer Stewart and to Sarah’s Long Walk : The Free Blacks of Boston and How Their Struggle for Equality Changed America by Stephen Kendrick and Paul Kendrick. This story was updated in 2021.